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We live in tumultuous times. Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, JPMorgan, and General Motors, may have repaid their bailouts, but the economic fallout of the financial crisis remains with us, in the form of high unemployment and higher projected national debt.
We wanted to hear what the man tasked with tackling these issues is thinking about today. So two Fools put on their button-down shirts and went downtown to attend Politico reporter Mike Allen's interview of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. What followed was a refreshingly frank discussion on a wide variety of topics.
Here's what Geithner had to say, edited for brevity.
On most of the bailouts being recovered
No one thought it was a realistic prospect we'd be where we are today. A lot of analysts at the time said the direct costs of the crisis would be in the trillions. It will be a very, very, very small ultimate cost to the taxpayer -- less than $100 billion altogether -- much smaller than the savings & loan crisis.
We didn't do it with enthusiasm, and we don't want to do it again.
The indirect costs are lost revenue and higher unemployment, and those costs were terrible. Until we get further away from that crisis and see more people back to work, people aren't going to be that impressed.
On the recovery
It's a very tough economy today -- unemployment is about 9%. Those are the tragic aftershocks of a crisis this damaging.
It's very hard for people to understand [that] it could have been worse than it was. People have no memory of the Great Depression, no experience of what most countries face going through a crisis.
The crisis was produced in part by people borrowing too much. Banks taking on too much risk. Huge overinvestment in real estate. As people save more and bring down their debt, growth slows. Because of the oversupply of houses, monetary policy doesn't have as much power to stimulate recovery. It takes time to work these things out.
Does the country have a jobs crisis?
Absolutely. Of course. Yeah. Millions of people still looking for work, risk of losing their homes, still worried about their economic security -- that is the tragic consequence [and] legacy of what was the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
Unemployment is still very high, and it's going to come down slowly. I think too slowly for everybody. While the political debate in Washington now seems overwhelmingly dominated by long-term deficits, the most important thing is to get more people back to work as quickly as possible.
We are sort of three or four years into the housing repair, but we've got several more years to go. We're working to try to get the services to do a dramatically better job of meeting the needs of their customers and their investors to clean up the mess they created, to bring more legal certainty and give more people a chance to stay in their homes. But the pace of repair will depend much more on economic growth, which I expect will occur at a moderate pace.
On financial crises
Financial markets are a product of decisions made by humans, by individuals, and you can't prevent people from making mistakes. There'll be future financial crises. The job of government is to make those crises less frequent, less traumatic, and cause less collateral damage by putting in place better shock absorbers, so the system is better able to adjust to those inevitable mistakes.
On financial reform
We let the financial markets completely outgrow the protections we put in place around banks after the Great Depression.
The Dodd-Frank Act gives us the ability to make sure that if you're a large bank, you have leverage requirements, capital requirements, financial cushions against losses, more conservative funding, so that we're not vulnerable to you making mistakes in the future.
Will "dark forces" undermine financial reform?
Some people are running a war of attrition against the reform act. It's very clear they're trying to starve the agencies of funding so they can't enforce protections for investors, and they are trying to block appointments as a way to get leverage over the outcome, and they are trying to slow down, so that they can weaken over time, the thrust of these reforms. And we're not going to let that happen of course. We've got to make sure these reforms can work.
[Incredulous] They won't have success ultimately, because they can't, they are not going to really, I mean, really, think of it, think of what this crisis caused. You think people have a credible prospect of legislating reforms that would undo ... ? It's not going to happen.
Everybody wants to make sure we have a strong, more stable financial system and that consumers have better protection. For that to work, you have to have people in these jobs who know what they're doing, who are willing to come work for their country and sit in those tough jobs and make good decisions. And a strategy that prevents that from happening cannot be in the interest of the American financial system.
By making the confirmation process really untenable for most people to contemplate, they have deterred people. So the reason why all those jobs are sitting empty is because they have raised the bar so high, untenably high, and that is a mistake. And it's irresponsible. And it's terribly bad for the country.
Congress has proven itself unwilling to confirm Nobel Prize winning economists [like Peter Diamond, to the Federal Reserve].
What happened [to Elizabeth Warren at her House hearing] yesterday was deeply unfair to her. She has done an exceptionally good job starting up [the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.] I think what you saw yesterday will lead everyone to question whether the oversight process is on the up and up.
Which bank handled the crisis well?
I don't think any of them covered themselves in glory. They all got caught up in a race to the bottom in care and prudence. They all got caught up in the pressures that led to more leverage, more risk-taking. And they all got caught up in a terribly damaging compensation race built on completely unrealistic expectations for what financial businesses could produce in terms of return. No one really distinguished themselves during that period of time.
On corporate taxes
We want to improve the incentives for investing in the United States so more jobs are created here. So the large American manufacturing companies build their next plant here, or that the major foreign companies choose the U.S. as a new place to build a business.
We gave businesses, for a limited period, 100% expensing for investments in capital equipment. It had a good catalytic effect on behavior and pretty high return bang for the buck. And we gave Americans a very substantial temporary payroll tax cut.
Long-term, the test we try to meet is things the market is likely to underfinance on its own, where the returns not fully captured by the innovator, and that have big long-term bang for the buck.
On threats to not raise the debt ceiling
I don't understand it as a negotiating position. I mean, really think about it: As a negotiating strategy, you are going to go say, "If you don't do things my way, I'm going to force the United States to default?" It's not a credible negotiating strategy, and it's not going to happen.
On Treasury's Plan B
Our plan is for Congress to pass the debt limit. Our fallback plan is for congress to pass the debt limit. Our fallback to the fallback plan is for Congress to pass the debt limit.
On political theater
This is a funny place, Washington. The House Republicans introduce a bill to raise the debt ceiling that they say they are going to oppose, ask their members to vote against, and then go tell the investors of the world to pay no attention. So it is a strange place, Washington. I don't really understand it.
On long-term debt reduction
People agree on the broad magnitude: $4 trillion of deficit reduction [over the next decade]. That's why I think you have a realistic prospect of getting something useful.
But the composition of those savings is important. How do you balance the interests of the elderly with the young, how you balance the need to invest in education against the obvious reality that the government is going to have to demonstrate that it can save money and do more with less?
The balance between revenues and savings is so important. People are not going to accept the dismantling of Medicare, or deep cuts in Medicare that shifts costs to seniors, if those savings are going to be devoted to sustained tax breaks for the most fortunate Americans. It's just not realistic, it's not going to happen, it's not possible. Balance is important not just for fairness, but for the credibility of the plan.
If people up there try to solve this by assuming away the problem, by using growth assumptions that create the illusion that we are going to solve it, by assuming there will be political courage in the future, that kind of magical thinking -- then the markets will say it's not real.
This is not a difficult economic challenge. It's fundamentally a political challenge.
On the Greek crisis
It's completely within Europe's capacity to manage this in a way with no collateral damage. It's not expensive. It's complicated, but it's not rocket science.
On ObamaCare versus RyanCare
We need to build on the reforms in the Affordable Care Act to get more savings out of the health care system so we can afford to give people who retire access to health care with an adequate benefit.
But it's also clear that you do not need to, and we will not, dismantle that basic commitment to seniors and shift it to a defined contribution plan that shifts costs massively to the seniors. The House Republican budget illustrates what you have to do if you are unwilling to touch revenues. If your objective is to leave in place these exceptionally low tax rates for the most fortunate Americans, then you are going to have to dismantle the basic commitments to our seniors, to the poor and to the elderly. And it's not going to happen.